Revealing New Perspectives:

Retrieving the Details of High Dynamic Range Images on Low Dynamic Range Displays through Tone Mapping


Author: Chihiro Hirai

Advisor: Professor David M. Mount

For CMSC 498A

30 October 2005



This paper also available as a pdf document.


This project involves the processing of high dynamic range imaging, or HDRI.  The goal is to simulate how an extremely bright scene in the real world can be rendered on a low dynamic range monitor in a manner that maintains the relative luminosities and reproduces the overall effect of the light source, while avoid clamping effects that typically occur through the use of standard graphics output devices.  Clearly, an effective algorithm would have to be found in order to simulate the image of such a scene. Extensive research has been done in HDRI, which has primarily been motivated by the limited dynamic range of most standard output devices.  One such approach is called tone-mapping.

The dynamic range of an image is the ratio between the lightest and darkest portions of the image [6].  Most of the common image file formats such as jpeg and tiff can only handle low dynamic range images, because they use only 8-bits for each RGB color component and so only support 256 distinct brightness levels.  On the other hand, a high dynamic range image is one that is comprised of a larger range of intensity values with usually 32-bits per color channel or roughly 4.3 billion distinct brightness levels.  Clearly, images with a higher dynamic range have the ability to display brightness levels that span larger orders of magnitude.  In other words, the brightness levels in these images allow real world scenes to be represented more accurately.  Dynamic range, however, is not only limited to file format, it is also dependent upon the output device (e.g. display monitor, printer) many of which are low dynamic range.

HDR images are often generated in one of two ways, either they are rendered synthetically through computer graphics or captured by a high quality digital camera or any device that has the ability to retain the intensity values of each pixel with higher precision; however the problems associated with HDR images are most evident when attempting to capture subject matter from the real world onto say, a photograph and view it through the use of a low dynamic range device, such as an LCD monitor. If the real life scene and its image were to be compared, significant discrepancies are sure to arise due to the limited range of luminance values the device has the ability to display.

For example, suppose you were to view a room with a bright sunlit window in real life.  Not only should the view of the room be clear, but the view of the outside through the window should be just as clear.  Now suppose you were to capture this scene with a digital camera; the results will most likely be significantly worse.  The interior of the room will probably be captured clearly, but the view looking out from the window will appear faded or washed out.  The outside will be indiscernible, and the information that was once available will now be lost. 

The number of luminance values in the real world is infinite, while the number of distinct distinguishable luminance values to the human visual system is approximately 10,000.  Unfortunately, most common display devices only have the ability to span a few orders of magnitude [3].  Obviously, vital information is lost during this conversion process, not to mention the true essence of the subject being captured in the image.

Tone-mapping is a method that maps higher precision luminance values to those that can be displayed more accurately on a device of lower dynamic range.  Within the past decade, researchers around the world have developed algorithms that will take a set of luminance values from a larger, unrestricted range to a much smaller, restricted range.  Among all of these algorithms, the other arduous task has been to find the best formula in performing such a mapping.  Ultimately, the goal is to achieve a method of mapping images having great variations in luminance in a visually faithful manner to media of limited range such as a printer, television, or computer monitor.


Previous Work

Tone mapping is not a new area of study.  The question of how best to display high dynamic range images on standard low dynamic range devices has been widely researched in recent years.  A number of software systems are being developed that deal with this problem.  HDR Shop is an open source program that allows users to view HDR images on LDR monitors [4].  Photoshop, the widely popular image manipulation software tool from Adobe, includes features for displaying high dynamic range images in its latest version CS2 (released April 2005).

The foundation for tone mapping is based on other fields of scientific research.  In particular, facts that have been gathered from studies of the human visual system have greatly contributed to the development of tone mapping.  The human eye’s ability to adapt visually is influenced greater by relative, rather than absolute changes in luminance [1].  The human eye perceives a particular luminance value in relation to the levels of illumination of the objects within its surrounding environment.  In other words, the human eye will not necessarily associate a single object with the same intensity level.  It may or may not, depending on the illumination level of its environment.  When the illumination level is dim (a dark environment), the eye is able to distinguish subtle changes in luminance better; however, the eye is less receptive to changes in luminance at bright illumination levels (a bright environment).

Replicating a real life scene that contains a wide range of luminance values onto an LDR display can be helped by adding “effects which perceptually expand and enhance the perceived dynamic range” [7].  In the paper “Physically-Based Glare Effects for Digital Images,” it is shown that sources of extreme brightness such as lamps or sunlight in an image can be rendered realistically by using exaggerated glare effects.  This is a topic that is also discussed in the paper by Larson et. al [3]. 

Despite the growing interest in HDR, there are very few software systems and image formats capable of dealing with such images.  One image format called Radiance (designated by files with a .hdr extension) was developed by Greg Ward Larson.  It stores images using 32 bits per color.  Larson, together with Piatko and Rushmeier went on to develop a tone mapping algorithm [3], upon which we based a majority of our tone mapping algorithm. 

Tone-Mapping Procedure

            Preparations (Pre-Tone Mapping).  The algorithm used to perform the tone mapping was based on the work of Ward, Piatko, and Rushemeir [3] as mentioned in the previous section; however, due to the fact that certain details were omitted, we needed to devise a variety of steps, which were inserted into our process.  We also relied on the use of several different software programs or programming languages to achieve our final result.

            The first task was to obtain some high dynamic range images for testing purposes.  Clearly, the images would give us the luminance values to which the tone mapping algorithm would be applied.  With the advent of current technologies (e.g. digital cameras) that enable users to capture images and retain the information of each individual pixel at a higher dynamic range, the task at hand seemed a rather simple one; however, we were also aware that it may not be possible to transfer the image from the camera to the computer in a manner that preserves the full dynamic range.  This is because many advanced digital cameras have the ability to capture high dynamic range images, but they save them in low dynamic range format.  In order to circumvent this problem, we downloaded some test images that were available (in high dynamic range) on the Radiance website [2].

Next, we needed to extract the luminance values from our image, which was a radiance, or .hdr file.  We imported the images into the HDR shop software [4] in order to view them in high dynamic range format on our low dynamic range device (the computer screen).  HDR Shop then allowed us to save the images, this time as a high dynamic range RAW file. We chose the RAW format because its primitive and simple nature would enable us to easily extract and manipulate the information of each pixel to suit our needs.

Like many image formats, RAW stores an image as a sequence of RGB components.  In order to pull the luminance value from every pixel, we used a program written by Dr. Mount that reads in a RAW file and calculates the luminance value of an RGB color source for each pixel.  The luminance value for each pixel was then obtained through the following formula, as suggested by Donald Hearn and Pauline Baker [5].

luminance = (0.299 · red) + (0.587 · green) + (0.114 · blue)

Upon computing the luminance values for every pixel in the image, we output them to a standard text file.

            Tone Mapping.  We chose to perform all of the computations for our tone mapping algorithm using the Matlab software package because of its built-in filtering features, as well as its ability to handle a variety of complex mathematical calculations.  Our program began by reading in the text file of luminance values, while storing them one-by-one into a two-dimensional array with the same dimensions as the original image.  This gave us a gray-scale image, identical to the original, except that it contained luminance values instead of RGB values.

            We were interested in capturing each luminance value based on a diameter of one degree.  In order to do this, we filtered down our test image by determining its height and width (in pixels).   We estimated a field of view along the y-direction of 45 degrees and used the formula below to calculate the height of our filtered, or down-sampled image.

height = y / (2·tan(ϑ/2)/0.01745),

where ‘q’ is 45 degrees, 0.01745 is the number of radians in a degree, and ‘y’ is the height of the original test image.  Using the value determined to be the height of our down-sampled image, we were now able to calculate the width to be

width = x  / (height · x / y),

where ‘x’ is the width of the original test image.  Next we utilized the Matlab function ‘fspecial’ to create a box filter and performed a convolution with the down-sampled image. 

Our next task was to create a histogram of luminance values.  This required us to determine the minimum and maximum luminance values for the histogram.  We did this by taking the logarithm of all of the luminance values in the down-sampled image and storing them into another two-dimensional array.  Due to the fact that the logarithm of 0 is negative infinity, we stored the maximum of log( luminance value ) and 10-4 in order to prevent storing negative luminance values.  Throughout this process, we also kept track of the smallest and largest values within the reduced image.  In the end, the smallest and largest values would be our minimum and maximum values, respectively.

We then distributed the values into our histogram bin consisting of 100 bins.  We determined the appropriate bin index for each luminance value as follows.

index = (luminanceValue - minimum)  / (maximum - minimum) · 100

where ‘luminanceValue’ refers to a single luminance value in the down-sampled array and ‘minimum’ and ‘maximum’ refer to the values described above.  Afterwards, we were left with each of the 100 bins containing a count that corresponded to the number of luminance values that fell within its range.  All 100 values were stored in a one-dimensional array.

            Next, we performed a cumulative distribution over our histogram bin.  For each bin, we totaled the number of luminance values inside its bin plus all of the pixels contained inside of the bin previous of it.  That is, for a bin, i:

bin(i) = (count(histogramBin(i) + bin(i-1))  /  totalPixels

where ‘totalPixels’ is the total number of pixels in the down-sampled image.  We stored the cumulative distribution in another one-dimensional array.

            Our next step was to refer back to our original image and perform the tone mapping on every luminance value inside of our image.  For each pixel in our image, we first checked to make sure it was a value greater than zero.  If so, we next checked to see if the logarithm of this value was less than the minimum luminance value that was found earlier. If it was greater than zero, we kept this value.  Otherwise, we set the value to the minimum luminance value.   If the original value had been less than zero to begin with, we also set it to the minimum luminance value.

            Our next task was to take each pixel in the image and determine which of the 100 bins it belonged in.  We did this by subtracting the minimum luminance value from each luminance value inside of the image and dividing it by the size of each bin.  This gave each of our values an index value.

            Using the cumulative distribution that we had computed earlier, we then determined the number of pixels that were in the bin of each luminance value.  We set the display brightness (a low dynamic range quantity) for each pixel with the following.

displayB = displayMin + (displayMax - displayMin) · pixelCount

where ‘displayMin’ is the logarithm of the minimum display value, the ‘displayMax’ is the logarithm of the maximum display value, and the ‘pixelCount’ is the value that was calculated above.  For our purposes, our display was a standard LDR monitor and so our minimum display value was 1, and our maximum display value was 255.  Then, we took the display brightness for each value in the image and took the exponential of it in order to find the world display luminance of each.

            Final Issues (Post-Tone Mapping).  After performing the calculations described above, one more issue needed to be addressed.  The above procedure only provides transformed luminance values. We needed to convert them back to RGB values.  By leaving them as luminance values, we would simply have a gray-scale image.  We imported a text file of the original image, this time with its red, green, blue components and stored in it an array.  In order to find the RGB components for each pixel in our image, we multiplied each component by the display luminance we found above and divided this by the world luminance value.  That is,

finalComponent = originalComponent · displayL / worldL,

where ‘originalComponent’ refers to the red, green, or blue component from a particular pixel in the original image and ‘finalComponent’ is the corresponding final red, green, or blue component after our tone mapping.  This was applied to all the pixels in the image, thus producing the final low-dynamic range image.


            We tested our algorithm on several test images, and discovered that the tone mapping algorithm performed very well.  Some of the results are rather astonishing.  When we compared the ‘before’ image (without tone mapping) against the ‘after’ image (with tone mapping), some of the results appeared to be two completely different images.  We however, know that this is due to the tone mapping procedure enhancing the contrast in various areas of the image of greater significance.

            All of the test images were retrieved as high dynamic range hdr files, courtesy of the Radiance website [2].  For the following image results, we first display the ‘before’ test image without tone mapping that we converted from a high dynamic range hdr image to a low dynamic range tif file using the HDR Shop software.  We then proceed to display the ‘after’ image, with the tone mapping algorithm applied to it that has also been saved as a low dynamic range tif file. 

After we applied the tone mapping algorithm to our test images, we went one step further and enhanced our images by applying a ‘gamma correction,’ which is a feature available on most standard image editing software (we used Adobe ImageReady).  In some cases, the results made the image appear artificial, overexposed, or produced artifacts.  In other cases, the gamma correction enhanced details in the image that were not present before.  When this is the case, we display both tone mapped images (with and without the gamma correction) and compare the results.

There are certain portions of each image that have been highlighted with red squares.  This is to focus your attention on key elements of an image that are discussed throughout this section.

            Test Image 1:  ‘nave.hdr’  When we converted the image from a high dynamic range hdr image to a low dynamic range jpg image without using a tone mapping operator, the low dynamic range LCD monitor could not render all of the pixels with any degree of visual fidelity (see Figure 1a).  The result was a rather fog-like effect, which is most noticeable around the stained-glass windows located in the top left hand corner of the image.  The light coming in from the outside is so bright that all the colors of the windows are washed out.  At minimum, a human would be able to discern the various colors that shine through the window.

            Despite the noticeable flaws with the stained-glass windows located to the left of the image, we get a good sense of the interior design of the church.  This is evident in several areas including the arched area above the stained-glass windows, which maintains a discernible amount of detail.

Figure 1a:  (Before) nave.hdr on an LDR display without tone mapping.

In contrast, the tone mapped image makes the colors of the stained-glass clearly discernable (see Figure 1b). It no longer looks like a washed-out photograph; however, we noticed exaggerated bright lights emanating from the stained-glass windows.  We believe that this is due to the naïve histogram equalization that we applied to the image as a part of the tone mapping algorithm, yet we did not take into account the histogram adjustment with a linear ceiling, an alternative approach that is described in the paper by Larson et. al [3].

The tone mapping also caused the areas inside of the church that were not lit by natural, but artificial light to resort to warmer orange hues.  These areas have become over-exaggerated which makes the scene appear as if were on fire.  We have also lost a few details of the church interior.   For example, take a look at the domed shaped ceiling located at the top-right of the image.  The ‘before’ image (figure 1a) clearly uses shadows and colors of brown and dark grey to imply a foreshortening effect.  The tone mapped image (see Figure 1b), on the other hand, renders the entire section and other parts of the ceiling with a single black color. 

Figure 1b:  (After) nave.hdr on an LDR display after tone mapping.

Test Image 2:  ‘memorial.hdr’  The pre-tone mapped version of the next image already seems highly authentic with a good amount of contrast in a majority of the areas, including the ceilings and walls (see Figure 2a).  The contrast within the three stained-glass windows were the only noticeable aspects of the image that we were hoping could be enhanced further with our algorithm.

Figure 2a:  (Before) memorial.hdr on an LDR display before tone mapping.


            Tone mapping definitely improved the details within the stained-glass windows (see Figure 2b) where the depicted scene and figures in them become discernable.  Also, the dome above the windows maintains enough of its contrast in order to remain fairly recognizable.  The church floor now seems to be rendered more accurately due to the range in contrast, which brings out a tiled texture compared to before where it all appeared to be of a single color.

Unfortunately, a majority of the contrast within the interiors of the church have once again been lost.  This is apparent at the top right portion of the image where the ceiling of the church appears black.  Before, a square pattern across the ceiling was obvious, and there were reddish-brown structures that stylishly held the top together (see Figure 2a).  Also, the colors are a lot richer, making the image appear as if a ‘dodging’ effect has unnecessarily been applied to it.

Figure 2b:  (After) memorial.hdr on an LDR display after tone mapping.


By applying a gamma correction of 2.3, we found that we were able to retrieve some of these details back (see Figure 2c).  Notice the domed ceiling located at the top left of the image.  We are now able to see the four angels that surround the decorations around the dome.  Also, the texture of the columns at the right of the image become clearer and the range of color become more noticeable, which was not obvious in either of the two previous images.  Despite the gamma correction, there are artifacts that remain particularly within the ceilings of the church.

Figure 2c:  (After) memorial.hdr on an LDR display after tone mapping with a gamma correction of 2.3.

Test Image 3:  ‘groveC.hdr’  The next image is a view of the woods that looks out into the sunlight (see Figure 3a).  We can see the texture of the bark on the trees as well as the green leaves on the bushes to the left of the image.   It is obvious, however, that a majority of the information in between the two trees to the right of the image are lost.  The extreme brightness of the sunlight washes out any detail of the bushes that should be available to be perceived.  There appears to be a white space, which is not an accurate representation of reality.  This information would be discernable by the human eye. 

Figure 3a:  (Before) grove.hdr on an LDR display before tone mapping.


            By far, the tone mapped version of this image looks the least archaic (see Figure 3b).  The most improved aspect of this image is the sky, where the amount of contrast has been greatly enhanced.  The trees in the foreground are now complemented by the trees in the background, making the entire view a more complete one.  In addition, the texture of the ground has gained a richer, earthier tone.

            On the other hand, it is obvious that the contrast that was present in the bushes to the left of the image as well as the bottom portions of the trees in the foreground have become obliterated.

Figure 3b:  (After) grove.hdr as viewed on an LDR display after tone mapping.


With this image, we noticed that a gamma correction at a level of 1.6 (see Figure 3c) helped brighten the really dark portions that became evident in the image, as we just described (see Figure 3b).  Fortunately, this helped gain back some of the information that was lost.  This image also retains the information of the trees in the background as well as the sky, but we lose a bit of the richness and contrast that we gained through our tone mapping procedure. 

Figure 3c:  (After) grove.hdr as viewed on an LDR display after tone mapping with a gamma correction of 1.6.


Test Image 4:  ‘vinesunset.hdr’  This next image may be the most disconcerting of all the images we tested.  It appears to be overlooking various houses from a high angle against a white sky (see Figure 4a).  It is almost difficult to even look into the image, as the light from the sky is so blinding.  Unfortunately as the title of the image may suggest, this is not exactly the case.  It is actually a view of the sky as the sun is setting, which most likely, is what the photographer was attempting to capture.

Figure 4a:  (Before) vinesunset.hdr as viewed on an LDR display before tone mapping.


We found that applying the tone mapping to this image brings a new perspective to the original scene (see Figure 4b).  It is now apparent that the sun is setting as evidenced by the contrast within the clouds and sky.  There is an orange light emanating from behind the tree in the middle of the image, which implies that the sun is now setting.  The ‘before’ and ‘after’ examples of this image are a perfect example of how clamping effects of an LDR display can misrepresent the artist’s intentions in a photograph or image.

The contrast along the bottom portion of the image that makes it possible to discriminate the houses has been obliterated.  The tone mapping has in a way compromised this area in order to add contrast to the sky, which comprises a significantly larger portion of the image.

Figure 4b:  (After) vinesunset.hdr as viewed on an LDR display after tone mapping.


            Test Image 4:  ‘rosette.hdr’  Our final image is an example where our tone mapping algorithm performs rather poorly (see Figure 5a).  The interior of the church is quite discernible, and it seems to be a rather accurate rendering of a real life scene.  It is obvious that a majority of the artifacts that are produced are from the stained-glass window, which is caused by the sunlight shining in.

Figure 5a:  (Before) rosette.hdr as viewed on an LDR display before tone mapping.


            The tone mapping adds a considerable amount of variation to the colors in the stained-glass window, and it no longer appears washed-out.  Despite the added variation, the window still looks overly exaggerated with glowing, fluorescent-like lights emanating from it.  This most likely does not resemble how this window would appear in reality.

The tone mapping also created an unnatural reddish tinting effect around the entire room.  This glow is a bit disturbing, and by far, is not an accurate representation of real life.  This is most likely a result of the tendency that tone mapping has to over-enhance areas where there are relatively minor illumination variations.  Compared to the other images that we tested, the luminance values in this scene probably do not contain enough variation in order for our algorithm to achieve a favorable effect.

Figure 5b:  (After) rosette.hdr as viewed on an LDR display after tone mapping.


We do realize, however, that certain aspects of our tone mapping operator would benefit from further development.  Our procedure tended to exaggerate and in some cases darkened, or degraded other areas that were not originally affected by the clamping effects of the LDR display device (e.g. room interiors).  These areas already contained a considerable amount of contrast mainly due to the fact that the illumination levels of these areas were not located at the extreme ends of the luminance scale.  The tone mapping process often reduced luminance resolution in areas of small variation in order to handle the extremes in luminosity of the original image.

Our algorithm demonstrated a significant improvement within various areas of scenes lit by natural light (e.g. stained-glass windows, areas looking out into natural light).  These sections are the areas most affected by clamping, because their illumination levels occur at points that are too high to be rendered accurately with low dynamic range devices.  The tone mapping acknowledges this and gives consideration to the areas with extreme levels of luminosity.


            Advancements in the computer and its technologies have come a long way.  There will be a continual demand for researchers to invent faster processors that outperform last year’s models or video game professionals to release newer versions of games that exceed the standards of graphics that we see today.  Yet in order to keep up with the latest technologies, it is important that the high expectations we place on our computer hardware and peripherals parallel those that are used to enhance the visual experiences that accompany these developments.  After all, who wants to take a family reunion picture outside on a sunny day with an advanced digital camera only to find that viewing it on the home computer makes everyone appear either faint or washed-out?

            It is not to say that all of the problems with computer technology may be solved with improvements in the reliability and fidelity of output devices.  Just by trading in your LDR monitor for an advanced one that has the ability to display HDR, the visual experience you encounter through viewing your monitor may not necessarily be a replica of real-life.  There are many more things that will have to be discussed in order to render a real-life scene with high fidelity. This depends on the subjective nature of the human visual system (HVS), which is a difficult thing to model mathematically.  There are many complexities within the HVS that are either poorly understood or too complex for scientists to completely capture. 

For example, humans have an ability known as peripheral vision.  It includes a field of view that is comprised of not just what is directly in front of you, but also seeing what is a little to the left and right of you.  This “subjective experience” is something that goes a bit beyond a simple, ordinary computer monitor or photographed image; however accurate brightness or luminance of a scene can go a long way in extending subjective performance.

Our algorithm improved the extremely bright areas that resulted from intense illumination and appeared washed out, but as a trade-off it suffered from a degradation of luminous acuity in areas of subtle variation.  In other words, it does the exact opposite of what many LDR display devices do, which is to correctly display areas that are not of extreme brightness or darkness, but inaccurately represent areas that do not fall into this category.

Overall, we feel that our algorithm properly demonstrated our idea.  Often times, a significant portion of data in an image may be lost or indiscernible to the viewer using a low dynamic range display.  Concerning images with little contrast, this problem may seem trivial, yet it is a serious issue that affects images containing high contrast elements.   Essential details that are crucial to the various elements of an image may be misrepresented, detracting from the overall meaning of the image. 

Luckily, there is a solution to this mapping problem.  It has been a heavily studied topic, and collaborative efforts are being made by accomplished researchers to find alternative methods.  It may be years before a perfect tone mapping operator is found, but it is comforting to know that the research has come a long way.


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[2]     Larson, Gregory W.  Radiance:  Synthetic Imaging System.  The University of California.

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[3]     Larson, Gregory W., Holly Rushmeier, and Christine Piatko.  A Visibility Matching Tone Reproduction Operator for High Dynamic Range Scenes.”  IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics 3.4 (1997):  291-306.

[4]     HDR Shop.  USC Institute of Creative Technologies.  11 Aug. 2005 <>.

[5]     Hearn, Donald and M. Pauline Baker.  Computer Graphics with OpenGL.  Upper Saddle River:  Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.

[6]     Meyer, Jon.  The Future of Digital Imaging – High Dynamic Range Photography.” Retrieved 9 Aug. 2005  <>.

[7]     Spencer, Greg, Peter Shirley, Kurt Zimmerman, and Donald P. Greenberg.  Physically-Based Glare Effects for Digital Images.”  Proceedings of the 22nd annual conference on Computer graphics and interactive techniques 520 (1995):  325-334.